U.S. puts conditions on captives' release

Officials wary of harsh treatment by prisoners' own governments

April 30, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A long-running effort by the Bush administration to send home many of the terror suspects imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been stymied in part because of concern among U.S. officials that the prisoners might not be treated humanely by their own governments, officials said.

Administration officials have said they hope eventually to transfer or release many of the roughly 490 suspects now at Guantanamo. As of February, military officials said, the Pentagon was ready to repatriate more than 150 of the detainees once arrangements could be made with their home countries.

But those arrangements have been more difficult to complete than officials in Washington anticipated or have previously acknowledged, raising questions about how quickly the administration can meet its goal of scaling back detention operations at Guantanamo.

"The Pentagon has no plans to release any detainees in the immediate future," said a Defense Department spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon of the Navy. He said the negotiations with foreign governments "have proven to be a complex, time-consuming and difficult process."

The military has sent home 267 detainees from Guantanamo after finding that they had no further intelligence value and either posed no long-term security threat or would reliably be imprisoned or monitored by their own governments. Most of those who remain are considered more dangerous militants; many also come from nations with poor human rights records and ineffective justice systems.

But Washington's insistence on humane treatment for the detainees in their native countries comes after years in which Guantanamo has been assailed as a symbol of American abuse and hypocrisy -- a fact not lost on the governments with which the United States is negotiating.

"It is kind of ironic that the U.S. government is placing conditions on other countries that it would not follow itself in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib," said a Middle Eastern diplomat from one of the countries involved in the talks. He asked not to be named to avoid criticizing the United States in the name of his government.

The push for human rights assurances, some officials said, also reflects a renewed effort by the State Department to influence the administration's detention policy, even as the United States continues to face wide criticism for sending terror suspects to be interrogated in countries known to practice torture.

Neither the State Department, which is the lead agency in the repatriation talks, nor the Pentagon would comment on them in detail. U.S. officials who agreed to discuss them would do so only on the condition of anonymity, either because they were not authorized to speak publicly or to avoid disrupting the negotiations.

Those officials said the talks had been particularly difficult with Saudi Arabia and Yemen, two nations that account for almost half of the detainees now at Guantanamo.

According to a State Department human rights report released in March, the Saudi authorities have used "beatings, whippings and sleep deprivation" on Saudi and foreign prisoners. The report also noted "allegations of beatings with sticks and suspension from bars by handcuffs."

Mindful of such allegations, officials of the State Department's human rights bureau, among others, have insisted that any transfer deal include assurances that the prisoners will not be tortured and will be treated in accordance with international humanitarian law, and that those pledges can be verified, officials familiar with the discussions said.

The negotiations have bogged down over questions of how those commitments should be formalized and monitored. U.S. officials at one point suggested that the prisoners be visited by the International Committee of the Red Cross, but the Saudi government does not allow the Red Cross access to its prisons, and the proposal was set aside, officials said.

Although Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1997, it also does not accept the jurisdiction of a committee that the convention established to investigate allegations of systematic torture.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, Nail al-Jubeir, said he could not comment on specifics of the negotiations, but he recalled that the United States had earlier insisted that foreign governments agree to imprison the repatriated Guantanamo detainees, regardless of whether they had committed crimes at home.

"The people coming back from Guantanamo will be questioned and investigated, and if they have blood on their hands, they will face the Saudi justice system," Jubeir said. But he added, "if we have nothing to hold them on, why hold them?"

Other major difficulties have emerged in Washington's negotiations with the government of Yemen, which has about 105 citizens at Guantanamo.

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